PC Pro's Barry Collins has covered the exchange of words between Virgin Media and BT at this weeks Westminster eForum. At the meeting it would appear BT suggested that it might be able to take its fibre roll-out programme beyond the current planned two-thirds if given access to the Virgin Media network on a wholesale basis.
It is not totally clear what was meant by wholesale access, it could range from ability to rent duct space through to actually providing a retail product over the fibre/co-ax hybrid network. The reality is probably something along the lines of renting fibre for point to point connection or duct space, although it would be interesting if a Virgin Media wholesale solution similar to BT Wholesale would allow BT to focus on rolling out to areas where there is no next-generation broadband.
It sounds like things got a bit heated when BT was accused of rolling out its new network everywhere that Virgin Media has already been, then BT saying it has not, and then the wording changing to 'vast majority' and BT still disputing this. Alas no firm numbers are available and as there is no announcement of the exact BT fibre roll-out coverage it is hard to know, but conversely it is hard to know exactly where Virgin Media services are available, as while the franchise footprints are well known, plenty of areas exist in the franchise areas without service.
So was this just posturing on the part of BT, hoping that rather than wholesale access the result might be that the government and regulator relax the requirement to provide wholesale access to its Next Generation Services in the whole UK? We hope not. There is some truth that if Virgin Media was forced to let BT rent fibre/duct space from Virgin, that it may be able to run some of its fibre links for a lower price, since in some areas the ducting may simply be in a better place.
Barry Collins in his commentary calls it a national disgrace that Virgin and BT are competing in the same locations, but to some extent this is natural when the free market is left to play. The real disgrace is that this situation has been going on for years, and no vision or firm direction has been given by the Governments of the last fifteen years. Duplicate networks are not necessarily bad, it does encourage competition, but perhaps too much in the UK competition solely means lowest price to consumer where quality of service is something that is often neglected.
As an example of the lack of joined up thinking, consider the plans for smart meters. Currently it would appear these will largely use GPRS data signals to communicate back to their central location. In areas with FTTP it would be possible to provide secure data comms that would not affect any Internet access over the fibre. This sort of joined up work, could reduce the amount of disruption to home owners, since the meter upgrade to the smart meter could be done at the same time as the fibre termination kit. Alas just like the roads, we will continue to patch up the potholes to see the next frost break the patch up and create piles of gravel to crack windscreens, rather than fix the road properly.